Mountain Lake, Virginia, USA

Lake Locations:

USA - South - Virginia - Blue Ridge Highlands -

Perched on Salt Pond Mountain in Giles County, Virginia, Mountain Lake is the lake that should not exist. With its amazing geological history and a recreation background stretching back to before the Civil War, Mountain Lake is a fascinating vacation destination.

Mountain Lake in the Blue Ridge Highlands is one of only two natural lakes in the state of Virginia. (Drummond Lake is the second.) Geologists estimate that water has been flowing into the lake for about 10,000 years, but the lake itself is only about 6,000 years old. Mountain Lake is fed by snow melt, ground water and cold springs, and some of the water then flows out into Pond Drain. About 6,000 years ago a rock slide of sandstone boulders at the north end of the lake created a dam partially blocking the outlet at Pond Drain. Under normal conditions, the water in Mountain Lake would build up and overflow the semi-permeable dam eventually carving its way through the blockage. That is what has happened to similar lakes and is the reason there aren’t more natural lakes in Virginia. Mountain Lake, however, is not a normal lake.

Giles County is the most seismically active county in Virginia, Mountain Lake formed over fault lines in the sandstone bottom. The cracks in the bottom of the lake provide another outlet for the water, which keeps it from eroding the dam at Pond Drain. It is estimated that Mountain Lake suffers an estimated subterranean water loss of 600 gallons per minute, every minute. As a result, water levels are very dependent on the water table and the amount of water flowing into the lake, but that is not enough to account for the wild swings in the lake’s levels.

It is estimated that Mountain Lake has dried up six times in the past 4,500 years, sometimes staying dry for decades. The lake also empties very quickly, often in as little as two years. Earthquakes in the area open and close the cracks in the bottom of the lake, allowing the water to run out like water from a sink. When the earth shifts again, the cracks close slightly and the lake refills. In 1959, an earthquake cracked a mantle in Mountain Lake Hotel and the lake filled back up. The cracks in the bottom of the lake have also kept it from becoming a bog or wetland because they keep the silt and debris from filling in the bottom.

Southwest Virginia had suffered a drought for years, and by 2002, water levels on Mountain Lake had dropped 15 feet. Its normal surface area had decreased from 50 acres to just 25 acres. By 2003, the lake was full again. In July of 2008, water levels were 51′ feet below full pond from its normal depth of over 100 feet. Even though the area received more rain than normal, by October of the same year, the lake was almost completely gone.

Mountain Lake is filling up again, and by March of 2009, there was a small lake at the north end. The springs that fill the lake create temperatures that rarely rise above 70 degrees on the surface and 46 degrees on the bottom. When the lake is full, water runs out Pond Drain and into Little Stony Creek. From there it flows over Cascades Waterfall and on into the New River. The New River is an “American Heritage River,” and a great place to tube. The section near Mountain Lake is exceptionally beautiful.

Such a variations in the lake’s water levels might make it seem challenged as a recreational lake. Mountain Lake, however, has served as a resort since before the Civil War. By the mid 1800’s, Mountain Lake was a stop on the stage coach line and drew hundreds of visitors a year. The lake and surrounding land has passed through several owners. After the Civil War, General Herman Haupt from Philadelphia owned the lake and changed the name of the hotel from Salt Pond Motel to Mountain Lake Hotel. The Haupts also built guest cottages. By the 1930’s, Mountain Lake was owned by William Lewis Moody, a former guest. In 1936, Mr. Moody built the existing stone hotel and used the wood from the old hotel to build more cottages. When he passed away in 1954, ownership of the lake and hotel went to his daughter, Mary Moody Northen. Upon her death in 1986, control passed to the Mary Moody Northen Endowment. In 1989, the Endowment established the Mountain Lake Conservancy to protect and share Mountain Lake. The Conservancy runs a Visitor Center with exhibits on the local wildlife, and the history of the lake.

Today, the 2,600-acre resort is known as the Mountain Lake Hotel and Conservancy. The resort is open seasonally from May through October and weekends in November. When the lake is full, guests can paddle boat, kayak, canoe and fish for rainbow trout and largemouth bass, but there is plenty to do when the water is low. In 1987, Dirty Dancing, staring Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey, was filmed at Mountain Lake, and the Mountain Lake Hotel stood in for the Kellermans Resort. Like the fictitious Kellermans, Mountain Lake Hotel has dance classes, a putting green, and lawn games. There is croquet, lawn chess and checkers, tennis and basketball. Over 22 miles of trail stretch around the resort for biking, hiking, and nature walks. In the winter, those trails become cross country ski trails. There is a disc golf course, archery, and wagon rides. Accommodations range from rooms in the main hotel to cottages. The dining room serves multi-course meals and there is a poolside snack bar and cocktail lounge. The resort has an exercise room, hot tubs, saunas, a pool and a gift shop, and the front desk is stocked with movies and board games.

When water levels at Mountain Lake are low, visitors are encouraged to explore the exposed lake bed to look for fossils and artifacts. In 2008, hotel guests discovered wingtip shoes, a cigarette case, a class ring, coins and human remains. The identity of the body was a mystery sparking the interest of both locals and guests. Eventually, the body was identified as Samuel Ira Felder. Thirty-seven year old Felder was boating with his wife and friends the night of July 23, 1921, when he fell overboard.

Mountain Lake is a short drive from the Jefferson National Forest. Combined with the George Washington National Forest in 1995, the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest is 1.8 million acres in Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky. With almost 2,000 miles of trails including part of the Appalachian Trail, the recreation opportunities are almost limitless.

Mountain Lake Hotel and Conservancy has a motto. “Do it all or do nothing at all.” The hotel and surrounding land certainly provide an opportunity to do it all. Mountain Lake’s quiet mountain setting and slower pace offers guests a chance to truly stop and relax. Whether just for a day or for an extended stay, Mountain Lake is an interesting and inspiring destination.

Things to do at Mountain Lake

  • Vacation Rentals
  • Fishing
  • Boating
  • Canoeing
  • Kayaking
  • Tubing
  • Golf
  • Tennis
  • Hiking
  • Biking
  • Waterfall
  • Wildlife Viewing
  • National Forest

Fish species found at Mountain Lake

  • Bass
  • Black Bass
  • Largemouth Bass
  • Rainbow Trout
  • Trout

Mountain Lake Photo Gallery

Mountain Lake Statistics & Helpful Links

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Lake Type: Natural Freshwater Lake, Not Dammed

Water Level Control: Mountain Lake Conservancy

Surface Area: 50 acres

Normal Elevation (Full Pond): 3,875 feet

Maximum Depth: 100 feet

Drainage Area: 1 sq. miles

Trophic State: Oligotrophic

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Trophic State | LakeLubbers

Trophic State measures the level of algae and nutrients in a lake.

An oligotrophic lake is very clear (blue in color) and does not support much plant or fish life. A hyper-oligotrophic lake is the clearest of all lakes, and is nearly devoid of plants and fish.

A mesotrophic lake is slightly green and supports a moderate degree of plant and fish life. A lake's most desired trophic state is generally this mid-point - the mesotrophic state.

A eutrophic lake is somewhat murky and supports a large amount of plant and fish life. A hypereutrophic lake is clouded with algae, plant life, and fish life. A eutrophic or hyper-eutrophic lake can be difficult to navigate by boat - and is often an unpleasant place to swim.

The use of phosphorus-rich and nitrogen-rich fertilizer on lawns and golf courses surrounding a lake can cause it to become eutrophic or hypereutrophic.


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Catchment or Drainage Area | LakeLubbers

This is the surrounding area that drains into a lake, including land, rivers and their tributaries. This is also known as the lake's "catchment basin".

Small lakes at the highest peaks of mountains have small drainage areas. The world's oceans have the largest drainage areas.


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Lake-Area Population | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated number of people who live in a house with a view of a lake, plus those who self-describe the lake as their home, for example: "I live at Smith Mountain Lake."


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Water Residence Time | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated time that it takes for an amount of water equal to the entire volume of a lake to flow out of - or evaporate from - the lake.

Residence Time can be as short as a few days for fast-flowing small lakes, and can exceed 100 years for slow-flowing large lakes.


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Completion Year | LakeLubbers

This is the year that a reservoir was first filled to the reservoir's normal elevation - or the year that a natural lake was first dammed. A large reservoir can take more than a year to fill after its dam is first closed.

The Grand Anicut in southern India is generally considered the world's oldest dam that still operates. Grand Anicut was constructed in the second century BC. It now impounds an irrigation network that includes roughly one million acres.

You can find many of the the world's newest reservoirs on LakeLubbers. Many of the world's oldest reservoirs appear on the last page of that list.


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Water Volume | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated volume of water that a lake contains -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. By this measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is Siberia's Lake Baikal.

You can find many of the the world's largest lakes (by water volume) on LakeLubbers.

Water Volume can be measured in acre-feet, in cubic miles, or in cubic kilometers. One acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover one acre (43,560 square feet) to a depth of one foot. One cubic mile equals 3,379,200 acre-feet. One cubic kilometer equals 810,713 acre-feet.

1 acre-foot is equal to 325,851 US gallons. Siberia's Lake Baikal contains about 6,276,367,740,000,000 gallons of freshwater - nearly 1 million gallons for every living person on earth.

The other - and more widely used - measure of a lake's size is the lake's surface acreage. By that measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is North America's Lake Superior.


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Maximum Depth | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated greatest depth of the water in a lake -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. The world's deepest lake is Siberia's Lake Baikal; that lake's maximum depth is estimated at 5,314 feet.

You can find many of the the world's deepest lakes on LakeLubbers. If you select the last page of that list, you will find the (maximum depth of) the shallowest lakes in our database.


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Average Depth | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated average depth of the water in a lake -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. If the water volume and surface area of a lake are known, an estimate of the lake's average depth can be calculated:

Water volume ÷ Surface Area = Average Depth

Example: 1,000,000 acre-feet ÷ 20,000 acres = 50 feet average depth


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Maximum Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's highest water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level, that can occur during flooding. A lake's highest possible maximum elevation is usually the top of the lake's dam or spillway.

At lakes that include residential development, government regulations usually forbid the construction of homes below a lake's maximum elevation.


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Minimum Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's lowest water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level, that can be reasonably expected to occur. Low lake levels can occur due to deliberate seasonal draw downs for irrigation or impending snow melt, reduced water inflows, drought and evaporation, residential or commercial water demands, and hydropower generation.

Some lakes' minimum and maximum elevations are virtually the same. Lakes that generate hydropower may vary by several feet - according to power demand. Lakes whose primary purpose is to prevent flooding can seasonally vary by 100 feet or more.

When some lakes reach their minimum elevation, their boat ramps may not be long enough to permit boat access - and boats docked on shallow parts of the lake may end up on dry ground. In those cases, kayakers and shore-based anglers may be among the few happy recreational users of the lake.


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Normal Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's normal water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level. For a reservoir, this water level is also known as "full pond" or "full pool".

You can find many of the world's highest-elevated lakes on LakeLubbers. Lakes with the lowest elevations (known by LakeLubbers) are shown on the final page of that list.


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Shoreline Length | LakeLubbers

This is the length of the exterior shoreline around a lake - measured at the lake's normal elevation. The shoreline length can be considerably shorter or longer when lake water levels are lower or higher than normal.

A lake with many coves has a much longer shoreline than a lake of similar surface area that is nearly circular in shape.

When known, the shoreline miles that we report in our statistics include only the lake's exterior shoreline, and exclude the shorelines of islands located within a lake's boundaries. In lakes with many islands, those islands' combined shorelines may exceed a lake's exterior shoreline.

You can find many of the world's longest-shoreline lakes on Lakelubbers.


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Surface Area | LakeLubbers

This is the area (acreage, square kilometers, etc.) of the top surface area of a lake - measured at a lake's normal elevation. The surface area can be considerably smaller or larger when lake levels are lower or higher than normal. North America's Lake Superior is the world's largest freshwater lake by this measure.

The other measure of a lake's size is the lake's water volume. By that measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is Lake Baikal in Siberia.

You can find many of the world's largest lakes (acres) on Lakelubbers. There is no widely-accepted minimum surface area that defines a lake. What Lakelubbers describes as a lake, you might call a pond. The smallest lake that Lakelubbers currently includes is Hawaii's 2-acre Lake Waiau.


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Water Level Control | LakeLubbers

This is the organization that controls water releases or outflows from the lake or reservoir. In the USA, this is often the US Army Corps of Engineers, a power company, a municipal water system, an irrigation district, or a paper manufacturing company. In the case of private or gated lakes, a homeowners' association may be the lake's controlling authority.

Many lakes cross borders, including North America's Great Lakes. The control of such lakes and their coveted freshwater may be amicably shared - or hotly disputed.

"Water wars" continue at many lakes as growing populations and crop irrigation needs compete for the freshwater that lakes contain.


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Lake Type | LakeLubbers

There are 3 basic types of lakes that are currently included on LakeLubbers. 2 types may be dammed or not dammed, producing 5 classifications.

- A Reservoir is a man-made freshwater lake that is usually created by damming rivers.

- A Natural Freshwater Lake occurs naturally - often by glacial activity - and has a salinity of less than 30 parts per thousand. It may be dammed to produce electricity or for other reasons.

- A Natural Saltwater Lake occurs naturally and has a salinity of more than 30 parts per thousand (ppt). It may be dammed.

"Brackish" water may be categorized as freshwater or saltwater, depending on its salt content (salinity). Oligohaline water has less than 15 ppt of salt. Mesohaline water has 15-29 ppt. Polyhaline has 30-335 ppt.


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